A fond farewell
As the days tick ever nearer to 2024, I have a not-small and bittersweet announcement: The incredible chapter of my life that has been deeply intertwined with The Nevada Independent is nearing its end. I am leaving The Indy to begin the next chapter — in California with my soon-to-be-fiancé. I will always have ties to Nevada and will be here semi-frequently, but this move is best for me.
I want to reflect on a few of the many happy and amazing things that this last six (plus) years has contained. Together with the state’s best-known and hardest working political journalist, Jon Ralston, who also has been a dear friend for nearly 15 years, I helped start and build The Indy from a team of seven to a team of 25 outstanding human beings who now make up Nevada’s only statewide news team.
Regarding my love for this like-no-other state that is Nevada, and why I wanted to be part of The Nevada Independent from the start, I cannot say it better than Jon did the night before we launched the site (with the caveat that I arrived in Las Vegas from Miami Beach “only” 25 years ago last month):
I came to Nevada more than three decades ago expecting to stay for two years. But the state’s gravitational pull drew me in, as it has so many, and I fell in love for life.
The people. The news. The potential.
Nevada remains small, with so many interlocking interests and relationships. The names change – or don’t. The state remains the same – or doesn’t.
Through it all, what makes this small state so large is the vast number of interesting stories about how it ticks and the people who make it work – or not. Nevada is endlessly fascinating and never predictable. It is also sometimes opaque.
It is in that spirit – of naming names, of telling untold stories, of illuminating the cloudy – that we are launching The Nevada Independent, an online news source we hope will forever change how news is delivered in the state and perhaps become a model for others.
Since the evening in late August 2016 that we agreed to do it, Jon and I have poured ourselves into this nonprofit news adventure. From the night we worked into the wee hours to get the website ready for its launch in advance of then-Gov. Brian Sandoval’s State of the State address and the kickoff of the Legislature two weeks later, this team has worked long hours, done its utmost, overseen periods of growth and lived through a year we weren’t sure The Indy would make it. (Our readers stepped up with donations as the economic reality of the pandemic hit Nevada hard, and under Jon’s steady leadership and some shared sacrifices the team willingly made, we were able to survive without laying off a single reporter.)
Over the years, we also received a number of major grants from philanthropists and foundations that wished to support our mission including the Engelstad Foundation, the family foundation of Geoff Ralston, Jon’s amazingly generous brother (who also helped us find our webmaster and CTO, the incomparable C.J. Keeney), Beverly Rogers, Arnold Ventures and the American Journalism Project (their $1 million grant enabled us to hire a fundraising team headed up by pro media executive Brett Burke, who has worked for media giants including Cox Media, Newscorp, Tribune Broadcasting and The Washington Post). These large gifts and others made a huge difference for us, along with the generous support of our readers, enabling us to expand our staff through an annual budget that grew from about $1.2 million in 2017 to nearly $3 million in 2022.
Together with Jon and our hard-working team of editors and reporters, The Indy has accomplished what we believed it would when we decided to go the nonprofit news route: attract voluntary reader donations and charitable support (amounting to more than $14 million to date) for our high-quality, in-depth, nonpartisan news content, without need for a paywall or subscription fee. Our content remains free to anyone.
Over the years, our team has trained and mentored many interns, expanded its Spanish language coverage under the steady hand of Spanish Language Editor Luz Gray, created a podcast and a slew of topic-driven newsletters, hosted many events that shined a light on and elevated public dialogue around important policy matters, produced video content we are proud of, won many awards, partnered with the law school at UNLV to dive deep into candidates in judicial races in Southern Nevada, took a run at fact-checking in order to correct misinformation online and learned valuable lessons which we incorporated into our editorial policies. We also recently embarked on The Nevada Democracy Project, a new partnership with Vegas PBS centered on civic engagement and inclusive community conversations that aspires to close a widening gap in Nevadans’ engagement in local and state government.
All in all, I am incredibly grateful for all we have been able to do for Nevada through our work, and for all this challenging but ultimately gratifying chapter has taught me. To all the team members, colleagues, sources and loyal readers I have served alongside: I will forever cherish our experiences together, and I salute and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Telling Jon I was leaving was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but his graciousness and generosity, and the warm support that has poured out from the team, my friends and my family, has been both humbling and amazing and has helped ease the pain. The Indy is in great hands with Jon, the board and the rest of the executive team at the helm, and I am proud to have been part of building a lasting institution in this state I have come to love so much.
As for what I will do next, I am not ready to announce that but will do so soon. My last day at The Indy will be a week from this Friday (Nov. 17, 2023). Until then, the work continues — and I will cherish every day, knowing they are now numbered.
P.S. There are far too many Indy awards and accomplishments to include them all here, but I would like to note the following accolades for The Indy and its team members:
- Nevada Press Association Journalist of Merit (2022) — Tabitha Mueller aka “Tabs”
- First Place — Best Opinion Page (2022) — Nevada Press Association — Jon and I envisioned the page as a platform for thoughtful policy-centric pieces (and rebuttals) from Nevadans along all parts of the political spectrum. It is that, and more, thanks to all who have submitted their thoughts in the desire to make Nevada better. We also owe a debt of gratitude to columnists John L. Smith, David Colborne and Michael Schaus, who have made our Sunday package shine for these many years.
- Jon’s excellent moderating of the only gubernatorial debate between Gov. Steve Sisolak and now-Gov. Joe Lombardo in October 2022 that was rebroadcast statewide on both NBC affiliates and also by C-SPAN was a big win for us.
- Honorable Mention — Breaking Barriers Award (2021) — Institute for Nonprofit News — for reporting on Nevada's tribal communities by Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez, who brought new understanding on issues affecting Nevada communities that have been historically underrepresented, disadvantaged or marginalized. (Jazmin went on to work for Kaiser Health News. We still occasionally publish her work.)
- First Place — Breaking News Reporting (2021) — Institute for Nonprofit News — for “‘Innovation Zones’ promoted by Sisolak would create semi-autonomous county at behest of Blockchains LLC” by legislative reporters (and now co-managing editors) Michelle Rindels and Riley Snyder. The judges: "I questioned the use of the word 'fantastical' in the lede, until I kept reading and concluded it was the perfect description of this scheme to replace local government with private enterprise, complete with its own made-up currency.”
- First Place — Innovator of the Year (2020) — Society of Professional Journalists—Las Vegas chapter. This award was granted in recognition of the news organization in the state committed to telling groundbreaking and different stories not typically told. The write-up from the judges especially noted “the incredible wealth of information” in Coronavirus coverage. Megan Messerly’s custom COVID data dashboard became the de facto standard for the state and was relied upon by many government agencies and imitated by other news organizations. (Megan went on to cover health care across the country for Politico Pro, and we miss her very much.)
- David Lynch Regional Reporting Award (2020) — Washington Press Club — “How Nevada got federal PPP loans for its taverns” by Humberto Sanchez. After President Donald Trump’s administration deemed in early April 2020 that small gaming businesses would be ineligible for an emergency loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, Nevada's congressional delegation went to work to reverse the decision. Humberto decided to find out how they achieved that reversal in this great example of reporting on Beltway politics for a local audience.
- First Place from the Society of Professional Journalists (2019) — Sigma Delta Chi Awards for Independent Public Service in Online Journalism — Jackie Valley’s award-winning and illuminating Stars and Struggles series, which was published after she made weekly visits for a year to a Title 1 school in East Las Vegas.
- First Place — Explanatory Journalism (2019) — Nevada Press Association — “The Cannabis Files” by Michelle Rindels. The judges: "This is an important and clearly written overview of the problems inside the Nevada marijuana industry, shining a light not only on the issues exposed on the surface but explaining why secrecy has seemingly exacerbated them." "It’s the definition of 'explanatory journalism,' as the reporter demonstrates a depth of understanding of the subject that enables her to write sharp, clear analyses of the situation as it stands today and how the state got there."
There are so many other Indy stories and projects of which I am deeply proud. There are, again, far too many to name in this space, but I want to highlight a few because they honored our mission in every possible way and helped persuade our readers, philanthropists and charitable organizations that we were worthy of their support. I also want to note some of the work of members of the team who have been a part of our growth over the years.
- Gold Country — The deep dive last year by Daniel Rothberg and Nick Bowlin into how a mega gold-mining merger tightened a company’s hold on Northern Nevada, produced in partnership with the team at High Country News, was formidable.
- Additionally, Daniel Rothberg’s 2021 piece (which won First Place for Explanatory Journalism from the Nevada Press Association) entitled “The curious case of a rare plant's destruction raises further questions about the extinction crisis, climate change and the role of humans” was one of my favorite pieces of that year. No one knew when the first Tiehm’s buckwheat plants were destroyed that summer, but by September, surveys had reported large-scale destruction to about half of Earth’s only known population of the sensitive species, a rare Great Basin wildflower.
- I adored Podcast Producer and sometime video creator Joey Lovato’s excellent explainer on how Question 3 on the 2022 ballot would amend the state Constitution to require open primaries and a ranked-choice voting method in the general election. It got a lot of views, and helped people understand the issues.
- Reporter Jacob Solis has been amazingly versatile since coming on board in 2018, from reporting breaking news on state government goings-on to covering the Legislature to assembling and editing our beloved Indy Elections newsletter and reporting on the 2024 presidential race to following developments in Nevada’s higher education system.
- From his recent piece entitled “‘Just win, baby’: On-court success is turning Las Vegas Aces into model for women’s sports” to his ongoing tracking of the dispute between the Culinary Union and the Las Vegas Strip’s big casino companies to his wall-to-wall coverage of the A’s deal at the Legislature that continues today, veteran gaming and tourism reporter Howard Stutz has been a rock on our team since coming aboard in May of 2021.
- Tabitha Mueller’s award-winning 2021 story “Amid shifting patchwork of laws and moratoriums, evictions play out on a courtroom stage” was a comprehensive piece that helped our readers understand the complexities of the issues without demonizing anyone. Tabitha now reports on health care, as well as the Legislature and elections.
- Kristyn Leonard, our audience engagement manager, has been even more stellar than we knew when we hired her to manage our social media platforms and expand the ways we communicate with our audience. She is also a talented graphic designer and keeps the “look and feel” of Indy content consistent throughout.
- As new Clark County street vendor law was implemented, Jannelle Calderon recently reported on vendor and community concerns that complying would be too expensive. As someone who loved the public response to a “dire” warning about a “Taco truck on every corner “ during the 2016 election — most Nevadans ridiculed the comment and cheered the idea — her story made me happy. Jannelle also has written some of my favorite features on the Latino community in Southern Nevada, including this one on a female horse-riding team working to honor and pass down traditions from the Mexican Revolution.
- I loved Sean Golonka’s 2023 TikTok video introducing our 12-part 2023 Follow the Money series, in which we reported which Nevada entities gave big and to which lawmakers, and then noted that information in stories about policymaking and votes. Sean, who loves data journalism, also created a post-COVID economic recovery dashboard that was a thing of beauty, along with serving as a key member of our Carson City team for the 2023 session. He’s been stellar on elections coverage, as well.
- Tim Lenard’s heart-warming and beautifully composed 2022 video report and story entitled “Pedal-powered compost pickup combats climate change with micromobility,” highlighting the work of Reno resident Mike Harrison, who works as a “rot rider” for Down to Earth Composting in Reno. (Twice a week, Mike hitches a trailer to an e-bike and motors around town collecting compost.)
- Our story on and video of the Sparks City Council candidate forum (2022) organized and co-hosted by Indy reporters Carly Sauvageau and Tabitha Mueller and KUNR Lucia reporter Starbuck, with video production by Indy Visual Content Editor Tim Lenard, was a foray into local government elections of which I was proud. “All politics is local” is still true, and these things matter.
- Rocio Hernandez has established herself as one of Nevada’s best K-12 reporters since she came on board in March 2022. Her newsletter is one of my favorite reads (here’s a recent sample). She also gets big scoops.
- Gabby Birenbaum’s weekly “DC Download” report highlights the work of Nevada’s congressional delegation, and her deep reporting on Nevada issues (including this recent public lands story) is truly excellent. She also tracks campaign finance data and helps out with election reporting, one of our key topic areas.
- In addition to serving as a general assignment reporter since earlier this year, Naoka Foreman has been covering the Westside and North Las Vegas, which has sometimes gotten short shrift from the media over the years. She also recently co-moderated our joint community listening event with Vegas PBS (her write-up is here).
- Former RGJ reporter Amy Alonzo has nicely stepped into Daniel Rothberg’s shoes on our environmental beat since he became our special projects editor (he now helps manage our in-depth accountability and investigative stories, while still covering water with a focus on how water issues shape policy, politics and communities in the nation’s driest state.) I loved Amy’s recent newsletter, which featured a write-up on an effort to save something I didn’t know Nevada had growing in the wild: orchids!
- I’ve also been thrilled to work with Hali Bernstein Saylor, our assistant editor, who joined us earlier this year after nearly 10 years as editor of the Boulder City Review, where she earned numerous first-place accolades from the Nevada Press Association for her writing, editing and photography, including four general excellence awards. I hope she will still give me a jar of her homemade apricot preserves from time to time.
I could go on for days. I end these incomplete lists with a nod to the collaborative spirit that has existed on this team since day one. Our reporters communicate and work together beautifully, help each other in a variety of ways, and produce work that is better for it. It has been my honor to work alongside them, and I leave them and our faithful readers with these words.
The Nevada Independent is raising $200,000 by Dec. 31 to support coverage of the 2024 election.
Tax-deductible donations from readers like you fund this critical work.
If you give today,your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar.